Vampire without a cause
George Romero caused a sensation with his first feature film, Night of the Living Dead, and changed horror films forever, but he and his partners failed to receive the financial rewards due them. He went on to a variety of projects, including straight drama. Itching to get back into features after making sports documentaries for a while, he wrote this vampire film Martin. Typically, Romero made it a vampire film unlike any other — one which touched on issues of the day, and changed the way we looked at vampires forever.
A young man stalks a woman on a passenger train. Breaking into her cabin, his romantic black-and-white fantasy of conquest is instantly destroyed when his victim appears from the bathroom wearing a cold cream mask.
He subdues her with a hypo full of sedative (her mask strangely rubs off instantly and cleanly in the struggle). Once she’s unconscious, he indulges his sick necrophilic urges, stripping them both naked and cutting open a vein to drink her gushing blood. It’s a very disturbing scene, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s protracted murder scene in Topaz. The next morning, due to a thoughtful clean up job, authorities think the whole episode was a sleeping pill-induced suicide.
Martin (John Amplas) has been sent by his family to live in Pittsburgh with his elderly cousin Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) due to unexplained difficulties back in Indianapolis. Surprisingly, Cuda knows of Martin’s attacks somehow, and sees Martin as the supernatural creature of the young man’s fancy, calling him “Nosferatu.” Martin insists on the more mundane explanation that he’s driven by a sickness. He knows there is no magic in the world. Cuda protects his door with garlic and hangs bells on Martin’s to prevent his nightly rambles.
Cuda’s granddaughter Christina (Christine Forrest, Romero’s future wife) argues that Martin has a mental illness and should be living under a doctor’s care. Cuda says his family albums prove Martin’s vampirism — that the boy was born in Europe 84 years ago, an idea that Martin himself backs up. Are his black-and-white visions only movie-bred fantasies, or actual memories from the previous century? While it’s clear he’s unlike any other vampire ever shown on film, Martin’s origins are left open to debate.
Working as a delivery boy in Cuda’s grocery store, Martin has plenty of opportunity to scope out potential victims. It seems like every attractive woman he sees is involved with an uncaring brute, and he imagines they would invite his gentle (if unusual) attention if they only knew him better. Even Christina’s boyfriend Arthur (Tom Savini) is an unemployed layabout.
In stark contrast to previous film vampires, and despite Martin’s cleverness and agility, his attacks never go easily, and are marked with complications and struggles. On occasion he even finds it necessary to take a life. At one point, he avoids stalking young women, feeding on winos in an alley. Even this doesn’t go smoothly, as his attempt to escape somehow escalates into a full gun battle between police and drug dealers (an excellent and odd action sequence).
An affair with a married woman, and telephone confessions to a radio talk show (an element Romero used again in Bruiser), help Martin to stifle his hunger. But inevitably, his thirst for blood becomes impossible to resist, and he must risk capture to hunt again.
The disc’s amusing animated menus lead you to the film’s engaging theatrical trailer, which is narrated by Amplas in character, and shows the black-and-white scenes in color. There’s also a friendly and informative commentrak with Romero (who has a small role as a priest), Amplas and Savini (who provided makeup effects as well as acting). It’s a chatty track between these three old friends, commenting and offering behind-the-scenes tidbits on the action, and rarely lapsing into play-by-play.
Six years ago, Elite’s special edition laserdisc showed a Night of the Living Dead we’d never seen before, a film unlike the blurry prints we were familiar with. Similarly, Martin has been known for it’s washed out look, but Anchor Bay’s full screen transfer is sharp and bright, with vivid colors that put even the previous laserdisc release to shame. Shot on difficult 16mm reversal stock, then enlarged to 35mm, no prints have ever done the photography justice. Romero states that he intended to have it printed in black-and-white, but luckily somebody talked him out of it (except for the “dream” sequences). On the commentrak, he mentions several times a lost 16mm black-and-white print of the film he had made — complete with the copious narration that he was talked into removing. Maybe sometime this print will surface and be issued on DVD, along with the European version (which was re-edited in “chronological” order with Martin’s flashbacks at the beginning, and re-scored by Goblin).
It’d be nice to see Romero work in black & white again, but thankfully we now get to enjoy Martin in brilliant bloody color.